Black robes or bathrobes? Virus alters high court traditions

Full Screen
1 / 2

FILE - This is a Jan. 27, 2020 file photo of The Supreme Court in Washington. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing big changes at the tradition-bound Supreme Court. The justices will hear arguments this month by telephone for the first time since Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention in 1876. Audio of the arguments will be broadcast live by the news media, another first. The first argument is Monday, and the court will hear a total of 10 cases over six days. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

WASHINGTON – The coronavirus pandemic is forcing big changes at the tradition-bound Supreme Court.

On Monday, the justices heard arguments by telephone for the first time since Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention in 1876.

Audio of the arguments also was broadcast live by the news media, another first. This is just the second time that the justices are meeting outside the court since the Supreme Court building opened in 1935. (The discovery of anthrax in a court mailroom in 2001 forced a temporary relocation to another federal courthouse less than a mile away.)

The court will hear a total of 10 cases over six days. Among the cases to be argued: President Donald Trump’s bid to keep certain financial records private and whether presidential electors are required to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who won their state.

A few things to know about the arguments:

SENIORITY RULES

Supreme Court arguments are generally freewheeling affairs, with rapid-fire questions coming at advocates. That often means the justices trip over each other trying to get in a question. This time, the justices are asking questions in order of seniority, with Chief Justice John Roberts going first and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the last to speak.

Doing things in seniority order is routine at the court. The justices sit according to the length of their court service both at the bench and when they meet for private conferences, where discussion also proceeds in seniority order. One surprise Monday was that Justice Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving member of the court, asked questions for the first time in more than a year. He almost never asks questions, and he's said he thinks his colleagues interrupt the lawyers before them too much.